The Subject of Active Verbs

It’s official. The build up to Halloween is now as long and involved as the hoopla preceding Christmas. The entire month of October is filled with candy swaps, costumes, parades, and parties. And the truth is – it’s a lot of fun! So why not?

We watch children put on their costumes and become someone else.

Even if you’re no longer a trick-or-treater, I bet you remember what it was like to put on a mask and become whatever you can imagine. You can be something else. You can be someone else – a character, a persona, a villain, a hero – and these children, they get into it with everything they’ve got, so in a gaggle of kids all dressed up, you better keep your eyes on them if you think there’s one who is supposed to come home with you.

These children dress up but when they take off their masks, they reveal who they really are.

On the night before his arrest, Jesus sits with his disciples and says, “The person who knows my commandments and keeps them – that’s who loves me. And the person who loves me, will be loved by my Father, and I will love them and reveal myself to them – and I will make myself plain to them.”

The people Jesus has met along the way in his travels up to this night have tried to dress him up as many things – his opponents have called him a false teacher, a deceiver, and even accused him of being demon-possessed, but now, in this upper room, it is becoming truly plain and painfully clear to the disciples that there is no one waiting in the wings to rescue Jesus. The world that Jesus came to love will not accept him, they will seek to terminate him, and they will gnash their teeth with celebratory ecstasy when they see his body go cold and rigid.

The disciples know who Jesus really is, making all this all the more painful, and so Judas, son of James dares to ask Jesus, “Lord, how is it that you will make yourself plain to us, and not to the world?”

This question from Judas isn’t some historical nugget that becomes anachronistic when voiced out loud today. We also ask with urgency, “Lord, how is it that you make yourself plain to us, and not to the world?”

Today we mark five hundred and one years since the dawn of the Protestant Reformation, when Dr. Luther and his compatriots did everything in their power to make the gospel more plain to the world.

Painstakingly, they translated scripture so people could read the word in their own language. By day, and by candlelight, they reworked the liturgy of worship so people could hear the word and understand the meaning. They wrote hymns that would connect with people, they explicated the scriptures into new catechisms and a plethora of teaching documents, they preached, and taught, and argued – to make the gospel more vibrant, powerful, persuasive…

So what happened?

There is no less confusion in the world today about who God is, and perhaps a whole lot more.

Five hundred years ago, the fight was about what could be said with certainty about God, but everyone pretty much took for granted that God existed. Today its not even clear there’s much of a fight, as people stream away from the church in pursuit of more “relevant” experiences, seeing little to no need for a place in a community that believes in a Creator who is still moving and active in the world.

What is clear according to Jonathan Merrit, is that the way we talk about God and faith has changed. In an article which ran on October 13th in the New York Times- and which begins rather provocatively- he writes:

“More than 70 percent of Americans identify as Christian, but you wouldn’t know it from listening to them. An overwhelming majority of people say that they don’t feel comfortable speaking about faith, most of the time.”

You could probably help me make a list of the reasons we don’t talk about God. It can be offensive to others, God is mysterious and we feel reluctant to say definitively what God is up to, and we don’t want to sound like fanatics and television evangelists. Today we pray for our Sisters and Brothers at Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburg as their community is ripped apart in the aftermath of loved ones murdered and violence perpetrated because of their faith, and we acknowledge that there may be consequences for our faith and our speech.

Almost certainly, one of the main reasons is that, like it or not, the wider culture influences us.

And according to Jonathan Merrit, in a survey of 1,000 American adults conducted last year by the Barna Group, it was made plain that most Americans — more than three-quarters — do not often have spiritual or religious conversations.

More than one-fifth of respondents admit that in the past year they have not had a single spiritual conversation. Six in 10 say that in the past year they had a spiritual conversation only on rare occasions.

An unbelievably small amount of Americans – 7 percent – say they talk about spiritual matters regularly. But according to Mr. Merrit’s findings, here’s the real shocker: Practicing Christians who attend church regularly are hardly distinguishable from anyone else: Only 13 percent of Christians who attend church regularly had a spiritual conversation this past year at least once a week.

I don’t know about you, but I have experienced what Mr. Merrit is talking about, in myself and in others.

It seems to me, we are fairly comfortable talking about Epiphany, about how much we love serving with friends from church, I would be happy to tell you what a true blessing it was to go to Virginia Supportive Housing last weekend and serve lunch to residents and play bingo with them; it is easy to talk about the beauty of the music of worship, the importance of this building where we gather, the value of faith formation, or the awesome people we know and love from this community.

But most of us have a harder time talking about God’s activity in the world.

Both of your pastors were formed by a doctor of the church named Tom Ridenhour. He taught us homiletics, which is just a fancy word for preaching, and one of the things he drilled into us and all of his students and anyone who would listen was that in our preaching and in our speaking as Christians, we should make God the subject of active verbs.

As in the sentence: God loves the word, “God” is the subject, “loves” is the active verb, and what God loves is “the world.”

But that’s harder these days. And its not just you and me.

According to the same article in the New York Times, this change in language has been happening on a large scale for a century. Using a program connected to Google and searching a collection of millions of books, newspapers, webpages and speeches published between 1500 and 2008 – the time of the Reformation and almost to this day— it is possible to find the frequency of word usage between these years, and the data shows that most religious and spiritual words have been declining in the English-speaking world since the early 20th century.

According to the findings, it’s not just big churchy terms like “salvation” or “eschatology,” which one could argue would only be used by the theologically erudite, but it’s also the language of Christian virtues — words like “love,” “patience,” “gentleness” and “faithfulness” — All these have become much more rare.

Words that connote humility – words, like “modesty,” fell by 52 percent. Words that connote compassion, like “kindness,” dropped by 56 percent. Words that convey gratitude, like “thankfulness,” declined by 49 percent.

Apparently people talk about God less frequently these days, and so we ask, along with Judas, son of James, “Lord, how is it that you make yourself plain to us and not to the world?”

And Jesus responds, “Those who love me! Those who love me will keep my word, and my Father will love them, and we will come to them and make our home with them.”

In other words, in God’s infinite good humor, he has made us the answer to our own question. God does intend to make plain to the world who he is, and to reveal himself and his plans for us, and he intends to do it through those who love him – through you and through me, through those who treasure his word and keep it and meditate on it and allow our lives to be formed by it, and are brave enough to speak it.

We are the ones who God calls to speak his word. We are the ones God has invited to tell the story of his love. And God sends his Spirit to help us. The Spirit will teach us. The Spirit will remind us. The Spirit will give us peace.

We are the ones, like the prophet Jeremiah, who have been sent by God to speak the words into the ears of those around us. Like Jeremiah, we may face hostility. We may be reluctant to speak about God because we fear that the word of God will be rejected, ignored, mocked, overrun by the world and we feel we can’t bear to watch that happen.

But that has already happened – Jesus has gone through death at the hands of the ruler of this world, for us. He has already been rejected, ignored, mocked, and killed by the world, but the Word made flesh is not silenced by the tomb. The tomb is empty and Jesus is living and we can now follow him, unafraid, with hearts that are not troubled, because we know his cross leads to a resurrection that breaks the power of this world, and fills us with courage to speak the Name and tell the Story.

It takes more mental planning to formulate a sentence that has God as the subject of active verbs, as Dr. Ridenhour at Southern Seminary used to say. But because he lives in us and speaks through us we can do it together.

Listen closely and you can hear the Name spoken and the Story told on the lips of parents, Confirmation mentors, Timothy Ministers, Bible Study participants, council members, Seedling small group members, Sunday school teachers, and each of us – because we have been baptized into Christ, and so we have put on the Lord, revealing who we really are.

We can take off the masks we sometimes wear to impress others or shield ourselves from the world and reveal our true selves – you are Sons of God and Daughters of God, precious in his sight.

We belong to Jesus.

And Jesus lives!

And Jesus gives us peace and courage to be who he has called us to be and speak the Name that gives life.

Thanks be to God.